Crossing the finish line of that grueling twenty six mile marathon. Standing at the summit of a 13,000 foot mountain, basking in the panoramic views. Taking that 5,000th grueling step on the Great Wall to finish the hardest race of your life. Sleeping alone, un-sheltered, and outside in the pitch dark forest at night at the tallest peak in Utah. Three of these scenarios probably induce feelings of inspiration and achievement, that natural high that comes from succeeding at a goal. And one of these things just doesn’t belong. And it has to do with the Kings Peak Trail in northern Utah. It might seem obvious which of these scenarios I am referring to. I have personally experienced each one of them. I feel confident saying that most people probably shudder at the anxiety-inducing thought of spending the night alone in any forest. Most people would assumingly avoid having to go through that venture at all costs. I never imagined I myself would go through that experience. But now that I have, when I look at those four scenarios, one of them stands head and shoulders above the rest as the most meaningful travel experience I have ever had: hiking Kings Peak, Utah. I always say that travel is the best form of education, and this experience left with me an overwhelming amount of personal growth and oddly enough, pure gratitude, for the lessons I learned from my own hiking mistakes!
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Mistakes I Learned on the Kings Peak Trail
If you have been keeping up with my state high points quest, then you know I backpacked the stunning twenty-six mile roundtrip, state high point hike of Utah, the Kings Peak Trail. Thanks to that spoiler above, you can probably deduce that I did in fact get lost on this hike to the tallest peak in Utah, and then proceeded to spend almost twenty four hours alone in a forest habituated by bears, cougars, coyotes, and moose, with absolutely zero interactions with civilization.
Despite all this, the Kings Peak Trail is now my favorite hiking experience I have been able to accomplish. I very well might have given it that title for its ruggedness and unfiltered wildness alone, but on day three of this hike, it earned that title for a completely different and unexpected reason.
For the last few years, I have enthusiastically fostered a growing tendency towards the outdoors: for “runcations“, “hikecations”, “bikecations”, backpacking, camping, you name it. I continue to be astonished at how much more you can learn from a destination, and how much more meaningful it is, to explore it on your own two feet, or better yet, to have trained for the experience for months in advance in order to fully appreciate the reward of standing on that summit or crossing that finish line!
I have always felt confident in myself and never doubted my physical or mental abilities on any of the challenges I have undertaken. But I humbly learned an immense amount regarding my own limitations, along with some very valuable lessons during that trip in the High Uintas Wilderness. I would not have planned or chosen the methods through which I ended up learning those lessons, but I am immensely thankful for the experience, and have discovered a new found respect for nature.
The Beginnings of a Botched Hike on the Kings Peak Trail
My nice, perfectly planned out, four day itinerary for hiking Kings Peak, Utah, went haywire around noon on day three. During my hike up to King’s Peak, I attempted to follow as closely as possible the precautions I was knowledgeable of, most notably to summit the tallest peak in Utah with others present for safety measures.
I thought I had a solid plan in place, but my critical mistaken assumption occurred shortly after beginning the descent from the summit, where I gauged that my hiking partner was going at a much hastier speed than I was, at which point I sent her on ahead under the second mistaken assumption that I was done with the most challenging and precarious part of the hike, and therefore did not need her accompaniment any longer. My third mistaken assumption was thinking that since I had experienced no trouble with the trail on the way in, I would have no trouble with it on the way back. Three strikes against me.
Whether it was a lack of attention, taking a wrong turn, or getting thrown off by the numerous “deer trails” intermingling with the “human” trail, within an hour or so of beginning the descent, I suddenly became aware that I had lost the trail, just like that. No signage, no cairns, no worn footpath.
Instead of trying to backtrack, I forged ahead on the misguided hope that this trail, in a very exposed area of a very large basin, would conveniently show back up soon. Needless to say that never happened. It is amazing how landmarks you might see from a higher elevation, such as a saddle between two mountain ranges, are indistinguishable from a lower elevation, such as inside a basin. I assumed I could locate the landmarks I saw on the way in to help lead me back out, although I knew I had not been paying as close attention to them on the way in as I would have needed to facilitate this endeavor. Nothing looked familiar.
After wandering somewhat aimlessly for an hour or two, I realized I had to stop and come up with a plan. I knew I needed to find a reliable source out. At this point it was mid-afternoon, and I also knew that I needed to start mentally preparing for the possibility of spending the night in the forest. I scanned my surroundings and picked out a point of higher elevation on a nearby ridge, then climbed as high as I felt comfortable, and looked for what I was hoping to find: a water source.
I immediately spotted a stream and made my way down to it, determining to follow it downstream. I had an inkling that a water source running downstream would ultimately lead me somewhere, although at this point, I knew I was probably not going to end up on the original trail that I started out on. However, I knew it would be better to be on any trail, even if it was not the “correct” one, than to be on no trail at all and wandering aimlessly. I ended up being correct.
By late afternoon, the stream I was following finally passed a lone sign on a trail marked “Uinta River Trailhead”. No posted mileage, but I knew it would eventually lead me out, though I had no way of knowing how long that would take. I followed this trail, which was quite picturesque and on any other day would have been quite enjoyable, until nightfall.
I had two beef jerky sticks, a packet of tuna, and a Cliff bar. My dinner that night consisted of my beef jerky and fresh river water, filtered through my water bottle equipped with Lifestraw.
Next I needed to assess my shelter situation for the night. I was gravely under prepared for building a shelter, which was just one of my long list of mistaken assumptions I made that morning when I packed only for an assumed twelve mile day hike.
I knew I needed to address a couple factors: the temperature, the weather, safety, comfort, and potential wildlife encounters. I was aware that black bears frequent the Uintas, as well as coyotes, cougars, moose, and elk. All of them are cute in zoos, but I really had no desire to interact with them up close that night.
I also knew that the temperature would likely drop into the forties. Not a hypothermia situation on its own, but coupled with the potential of a summer rainstorm, which the area was known for, could become life threatening. If it were to rain, some form of cover was imperative to plan for ahead of time.
I did not venture far off the trail and the stream when selecting shelter. I knew I did not want to be at the water’s edge and intercept wildlife on their way down for a drink, but I wanted to be close enough to the water and trail for my own needs, or for the off chance of another hiker passing by. I picked out an area on a slightly sloping section above the trail, hoping uneven terrain might possibly deter any wildlife, or possibly just make them a little less interested in coming to visit me.
Without the proper tools to build a shelter, I found a grouping of tall pines, with a secondary grouping of young juvenile pines and shrubs growing in a circumference around the base of the tall pines. I pushed my way into the center, giving myself wind and rain cover above from the tall pines, and cover at ground level from the young pines.
I also hoped being in the center of somewhat prickly foliage would help to deter wildlife. I was able to tear off some pines branches brimming with needles to put down on the ground to sleep on, and some branches to layer on top of me for additional insulation.
One of my biggest concerns was actually getting at least a little sleep. Not knowing how far I would have to walk the next day, I wanted to give myself the best chance at having the energy. I was worried that my imagination would get the best of me in the total darkness, and I would jolt awake at every slight crunch of leaves. However, my close proximity to the gurgling stream provided some welcome background noise that drowned out nearly ever other sound. I was actually able to get some sleep in the middle of my little grove of trees. Fortunately, I had thick wool hiking socks, water-resistant hiking pants, and a waterproof shell jacket, which I was very grateful for in that moment, so although it was quite chilly, the temperature never became life threatening.
Nightfall in the Uintas on the Kings Peak Trail
No wildlife sightings, no noises, no weather. I watched the crimson sunset, and at some point late into the night, I was awakened by repetitive flashes of light. In their illumination, I was able to make out the outline of the Uintas mountain range in the distance.
It was one of the more surreal moments of that night to realize that, somewhere in the not far off distance, it was storming and raining. That same rain could have made my current situation a much more grave situation had it migrated towards me, but instead I watched it from afar, fully appreciating the beauty that is a mountain range lit up in the deafening silence and thick darkness of a forest sky. It wasn’t until the next day that I learned that same storm drenched the area I initially lost the trail in. Had I continued to wander aimlessly in that exposed area, my outcome might very well have been much different. Being led in the exact opposite direction ended up being my rescue.
I slept for several hours, and then had several hours of calm reflection and complete, enveloping darkness. The worst part of the night was not being able to communicate to anyone that I was alright. Earlier in the day, during the most frenzied part of my attempts to rediscover the trail, my phone inadvertently exited my pocket, and decided to become a permanent fixture of the forest floor (hence the reason for my lack of pictures).
As soon as daylight broke over the mountains and began filtering through the trees, and I could clearly make out the outline of the trail, I was back on the move, hiking about five more hours until I finally came upon the trailhead!
Followed by subsequent assistance from the first people I had seen in about twenty-two hours, to whom I now owe much more than can be said in a blog! Sometimes you know when you run into people, that it was not by coincidence!
And despite my hastiest attempts to emerge from the forest as quickly as possible, I was not quicker than the hasty preparations of the community who were initiating the search for me. I ended up walking around thirty miles in total, crossed the basin in basically the opposite direction, and ending my hike in the Ashley National Forest, not the Wasatch National Forest where I had started the day prior.
What I Learned from My Hiking Mistakes at the Tallest Peak in Utah
So what did I learn from this hiking experience gone wrong on the Kings Peak Trail? I learned the incredible mental strength and fortitude that comes from staying calm. It is easy to say, but harder to do.
Remaining calm allows you to think clearly and formulate a plan. It is better to find any way out, even if it is not your original, intended way out, than to wander aimlessly searching for that original. In the case of losing a trail, if it happens and you have not been able to recover it after attempting to backtrack, formulate an alternative. Give yourself and others the best chance of making contact. Figure out what you need to do to improve your odds and best position yourself to be found. For me, it was locating a water source.
Second, I felt an enormous rush of emotions after everything had a chance to sink in, and then an equally enormous feeling of personal growth. If you have ever wondered if we as humans are alone in life, try spending a night lost in the forest, a forest that you know has claimed the lives of others before you. Any doubts I have ever had as to who is in control of this world, were solidified, as I am sure yours would be also.
An experience like this has a way of realigning your priorities. It wasn’t until later on that fourth day that I learned of several others hikers who had also gone missing in that same timeframe. Their outcomes were far different from mine. It sinks in how fortunate we all are, and also what is really important in life. Yeah, money had to be spent on another phone, replacing camping gear that got left behind when I didn’t make it back to base camp that night, the changes in travel plans. It’s just stuff. It’s all just stuff. It’s ALL just stuff. When the people you love are safe, THAT is really all that matters.
Lastly, do not trust mistaken assumptions (this is one of the biggest hiking mistakes I preach adamantly). There are too many mistakes that I made on this hike to list them all, but most of them I can trace back to an assumption. You are not invincible either. No hiker is “too good” for proper preparation. Experience can make you a better hiker, but it does not make you a psychic.
People have joked with me that they bet I am ready to take a break from traveling after this experience, or that I have probably have had enough of hiking for now, but it could not be more opposite! I am already itching for my next hike! In fact, I would love nothing more than to go back to the Uintas and hike the King’s Peak Trail again!
I am grateful for every traveling experience I have had, but particularly for this one on the Kings Peak Trail. It is the one I have grown the most from, and has had the biggest impact on me. As in every part of life, things go wrong when traveling, but embrace the challenges that come with it!
Sitting in the forest alone that night at the base of the tallest peak in Utah, with nothing but silence to keep me company, I almost allowed myself to have the thoughts of “maybe I am pushing this too far”, and “I would not have gotten myself into this if I took it a little easier”. But by the end of that night, I knew this was why I wanted to start writing in the first place! You cannot always put these kinds of experiences into words, but you can try! It is the real moments like these, traveling and experiencing the world, that the true growth comes from, and I feel more excited and confirmed in my enthusiasm to get out there and keep sharing!
So go, explore, embrace, and test yourself! But be knowledgeable, prepared, and smart about it when you do!
Read More: whether you are hiking your next mountain with a group or hiking solo, take advantage of these lessons learned from my botched hike at the tallest peak in Utah, by checking out my solo hiking safety tips, the top 5 hiking mistakes to avoid, and my complete backpacking essentials checklist!
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